Mon. Aug 15th, 2022

It says anything about the collection of veganism that last week it broke not one but two bastions of British culinary culture. First, there were complaints about the fanfare of eggs, butter and cream, The Great British Bake Off, was left with a separate egg yolk on his face when the first vegan participant, 19-year-old Freya Cox, was given animal products to use during a technical challenge.

Then Cadbury announced that from next month there would be a vegan alternative to its signature confectionery, the Dairy Milk chocolate bar. The Cadbury Plant Bar replaces almond paste with “the glass and a half of milk” that is said to go in every milk bar.

Both events made headlines because each in their own small way signaled the increasing penetration of veganism into “normal” life. And nothing, except perhaps a cup of tea (which in any case is increasingly made with oat milk), says more usually in the UK than cakes and chocolate.

They were just the kind of treats that for many years vegans were expected to give up their commitment to what was widely considered an ascetic lifestyle. But in addition to undergoing its own gastronomic revolution, with a wealth of cookbooks and recipes from celebrity chefs, veganism has recently had a radical image overhaul.

“I used to think of vegans as pasta-like and generally pretty thin,” says 61-year-old Mike Harper, who became vegan six years ago. As a retiree in North Devon, he moved from a vegetarian to a vegan diet under pressure from his daughters and immediately completed an Ironman triathlon.

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman, who became vegan in 2009, recently said her skin ‘became amazing’ as soon as she did. Photo: Manny Carabel / Getty Images

The old vegan profile that Harper soon found out was fake has gone the way of Crank’s restaurant and cliche of nut roast. Instead of serious caricatures like Keith in Mike Leigh’s 1976 Play for Today, Nuts in May, who gladly yawned at the importance of chewing, there are now a host of celebrity figures — among them Bella Hadid, Lewis Hamilton, Joaquin Phoenix, Thandie Newton and Natalie Portman — who present a far more media-friendly image of veganism.

Meat consumption in this country has fallen by 17% over the last decade. That Economist magazine with the name 2019 “The year of the vegans”. And last year, the World Health Organization recommended a plant-based diet for a healthy life. This endorsement, coupled with growing concern about the impact of milk production on the environment combined with the lifestyle rethinking made possible by lockdown, has significantly increased the number of people turning their backs on animal products in the UK.

The exact number of vegans is almost impossible to determine, but studies have shown rapid growth. One suggested that there had been a 40% increase by 2020, bringing the total amount to around € 1.5 million. It’s probably an overestimation, but certainly more than 500,000 promised to eat vegan as part of this year’s Veganuary. Of course, when the numbers swell, so do the market and commercial opportunities.

It is not only the vegan convenience foods that are now on the supermarket shelves or the menu at restaurants, but also the many clothes and cosmetics. It is now possible to buy non-leather Dr Martens boots and Hermes bags made of sponge, while Veja faux suede trainers won the fashion effort four years ago.

Alice Adams, a writer and former data analyst, says there have always been alternatives to non-animal clothing — if not necessarily fashion — but labeling has changed.

“Now you look at shoes and they want a vegan label on them,” she says. “In any case, leather has been replaced by other materials that perform better in things like running shoes and hiking boots.”

A lifelong vegetarian, she came to veganism over several years before finally going all the way 15 years ago. “For most people,” she says, “it’s a process. For me, the cognitive dissonance just became too much and I finally tipped over the edge. ”

Cadbury's apology for taking so long to produce a plant-based chocolate bar, Shoreditch, east of London.
Cadbury’s apology for taking so long to produce a plant-based chocolate bar, Shoreditch, east of London. Photo: Simon Jacobs / PA

In much the same way, veganism grew as a movement out of a schism in vegetarianism. In 1944, a few members of the British Vegetarian Society requested that part of the company’s newsletter be set aside for those who also avoided eggs and dairy. When the request was flatly rejected, the secretary of the Leicester branch, Donald Watson, set up a new quarter. He coined the term “vegan” and took the first three and last two letters vegetarian because he declared that it marked “the beginning and end of vegetarian”.

The first response was promising and attracted a correspondence between more than 100 supporters, among them George Bernard Shaw, who promised to give up eggs and dairy. Thereafter, progress was slow, and the move from a meat-free diet to one without animal products often showed a gap.

Adams says cheese is often the stumbling block. “Vegan cheese is mostly awful. There is good vegan cheese in the world. Miyoko’s in the USA makes fantastic vegan cheese, but it has not reached the UK yet. ”

When Verna Burgess, 57, from Hertfordshire, started veganism in the late 1980s, there was almost nothing available as a substitute. “You could not even get ice cream,” she recalls.

Sneakers on two shelves, made of organic and vegan fabric.
Sustainable sneakers made of organic and vegan fabric. Photo: Michael Dalder / Reuters

She remembers the gradual introduction of products and brands, and when the café in her local Waterstones introduced plant extract milk, she wrote a letter of thanks to the board. “I said, ‘Thank you very much. Now I can have a cappuccino. ‘”

For her, it was never a sacrifice to give up such pleasures because, as she puts it, she just wanted to think about the suffering of the animals. If meat is murder, then dairy is torture, by counting most vegans. Increasingly, however, it is concern about carbon production and the environment that is driving a new generation towards a plant-based diet.

Chandu Gopalakrishnan, a sign language interpreter, is 24 and became vegan four years ago. “I originally did it more for environmental reasons,” she says, but then she went to a vegan festival where she wore a virtual reality headset that showed the life and death of a dairy cow. “It was really immersive and very touching to see something so innocent being used so unnecessarily,” she says.

Although this experience has reinforced her veganism, the environment is still at the center of her concerns. She would like to see a system introduced where the environmental impact was described in detail on meat and dairy packages, in the same way as health consequences are shown on cigarette packages.

“If it was side by side with a non-animal product that might have been more expensive, then people could make an informed choice,” she says.

But Mike Harper prefers to see a more interventionist approach from the government.

“A lot of vegans I know are white middle class,” he points out. ‘But the fact is that if you have a low salary and you are raising a family, then you will go for the cheaper food option. But if the government subsidized non-meat products, people would try them. ”

It is hard to imagine a laissez-faire government with close ties to the traditional agricultural industry that will soon undertake such. For all today’s interest in veganism, global demand for dairy products continues to rise, mainly due to population growth and westernization of diets in countries like China and India. Seen against the massive background, the insensitivity of The Great British Bake Off production team or the introduction of a new chocolate bar hardly seems of great import.

Yet new futures come from such gestures and opportunities. A generation ago, vegans were fired as moralizing boredom. As the old joke went: “How do you know someone is vegan? Answer: They will tell you. “Today, a plant-based diet of ever-increasing numbers of people is seen as the only sensible way forward. In the years to come, even the most cheesy carnivores will have no choice but to consider it, albeit only as food for thought.

In numbers

79 million
The estimated number of vegans in the world

500,000
People who attended Veganuary in the UK this year, up from 400,000 in 2020 and 250,000 in 2019

66%
The proportion of British vegans who are women

163%
The increase in Deliveroo’s vegan orders in the UK in 2020 compared to 2019

55,000
The number of products with the Vegan Society vegan brand, including 18,000 food and beverages

$ 24.3 billion
The forecast size of the global vegan food market in 2026, med cosmetics worth 20.8 billion

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